Fire chaplain extinguishes dangerous blazes; fans inner fire

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Dressed in worn and tattered yellow turnouts, with a phone on one ear fielding a prayer need and a fire pager in his pocket—the alarm sounds­. Time to go. 

Four men pile into the fire engine, fasten their seatbelts, and put on their headsets. A structure fire is blazing a few blocks away, according to the report on the monitor. The road is blocked off by police cars, inducing slight frustration. A few moments later the road is clear.

They assess the situation and find it is not a structure fire, but a small canyon fire. After peeling back a fence and using a ladder to climb over another, Division B successfully extinguishes the fire before it reaches the surrounding homes.

Leaving the scene, a couple of adolescents walk by, speaking profanely.

"Watch your language bro. You shouldn't be talking like that," Capt. Ralph Haynes said.

Total time on scene: 35 minutes.    

It's the San Diego Fire Department, Station 17, with Division B on duty. Fire Capt. Haynes is in charge. Haynes is going on 28 years with the department and has been a captain for 19 years. 

City Heights' Station 17, or "The Hub" as it is aptly named for its location in the center of the city, is also the busiest station in San Diego and one of the busiest in California.

"(Haynes is) one of the most respected captains in the department. He's seasoned, a great leader, teacher, and role model," said SDFD Public Relations Representative Maurice Luque.

Widely known as "Rev.," Haynes is also one of three fire-rescue department chaplains, and has been for 15 years.

Balancing being both a chaplain and captain on an active basis is rare.

"Having a captain who serves as a chaplain in the department is very unique in the history of the department and sure is beneficial to us," the spokesman said. "He has a breadth and depth of understanding because of the trials, sorrows and joys that go with being a firefighter. He can expound on that which he does,."

Beyond that, Haynes' main priority is being a father of four, a grandfather of three, and a husband to Raynice.

Additionally, Haynes is an instructor at the fire-rescue academy and the Men's Ministry Leader at New Venture Christian Fellowship in Oceanside.

Haynes also led a Bible study for six years at the senior citizen apartment complex frequently visited for medical emergencies across the street from the station. The opportunity to lead the study unexpectedly arose after an emergency call for one of the residents.

The granddaughter of a stroke victim, a San Diego State University student, was distressed and Haynes thought to himself, "OK, this is a chaplain call here."

He then spent some time reassuring her that her grandmother was in good hands and even prayed with her. Fire department regulations allow Haynes to use his discretion when ministering to those on a scene.

Haynes also receives phone calls from fellow firefighters, and sometimes police officers, in need of counseling, prayer or an encouraging Scripture.

"It's a role used more often than not," Haynes said of his role as chaplain. "I'm on duty all the time. I can get called anytime."


Relating ministry
Haynes' crew appreciates the difference it makes having a chaplain as a captain.

 "You can ask Ralph, 'There was that part in the Bible when…' and he can recite it," B division firefighter Bill Gall said.

Co-worker Chuck Adams agreed.

"He studies constantly," he said.

A couple of years ago, Adams, a fire-medic for Division B, joined the Station 17 team after getting a phone call from Gall, who said that a spot was opening up at The Hub. Adams and Gall had been partners as volunteer firefighters from 1992 to 1994.

"People told me 'Oh, station 17 with Ralph, they're gonna get you Bible readin','" Adams said.

Adams had attended Catholic Church with his wife for 12 years, but didn't consider himself a practicing Christian. After getting the bid for Station 17, he and his wife began attending Menifee Calvary Chapel in Riverside County.

 "I repeated the pastoral prayer for salvation" several months later, Adams said.

Adams eagerly shared his conversion news to fellow Christian and crewmate Rob Hartman. Hartman—with great enthusiasm—ran and grabbed Haynes.

"Tell Ralph what you just told me!" Hartman said to Adams.

"I repeated that prayer …" Adams said.

"He got saved!" interrupted Hartman.


Workplace solace
Haynes' crew began holding regular Bible studies during free time at the station, often between 5:45 and 6:45 a.m. or in the late evening.

"I'm in the best support network right here," Adams said.

Haynes plans to baptize both Adams and his wife this spring. 

 "My whole career I've waited for the day when I can have Bible studies at work with my whole crew," Haynes said.

Shawn Mitchell, a 19-year chaplain for the San Diego Chargers, said there are definite advantages to workplace chaplains.

"It would be an unquestioned benefit (to have a Christian firefighter crew) because firefighters are dealing with tragedy on a daily basis," said Mitchell, who is also founding pastor of Haynes' church New Venture. "When difficult times come, they know who to turn to for strength, and that's our Lord. They encourage each other, pray for each other, and without that it would be much more difficult."

The dynamic interplay of Division B's faith and their professional work affects every bit of their job, they said. Biblical references are also made throughout the day, including lighthearted banter about Jacob and Esau during a baby delivery certification.

"I pray before work, all during work and usually before every call," Haynes said. "My faith is constantly in action. As James said, 'Faith without works is dead.'"  

His role modeling appears to be catching on.

"My faith has helped me to be a better firefighter because I know this is what I'm supposed to be doing," Adams said. "This is my calling."


Nationwide ministry
Organizations like Chaplain Fellowship Ministries, Firefighters for Christ, and the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters all base their mission on the idea that one's occupation as a firefighter can coincide with one's faith. 

"The dangers the firefighter faces could bring about the loss of his own life," states the Texas-based Chaplain Fellowship Ministries Web site. "Seeing death and physical injuries often produce feelings of guilt or helplessness. ... In this setting, the need for a chaplain is evident."

Firefighters for Christ, a non-profit organization based in Orange County, states that their mission is to "encourage firefighters to live their lives for Jesus Christ." Some of their goals include "to glorify God in the fire service," and "to bring all Christians in the fire service to a common goal of praying for the fire service and its members." 

As they have bonded as a crew, their reputation is drawing attention beyond the firehouse. Under the direction of Haynes, Station 17, Division B was named the 2003 and 2006 crew of the year for the SDFD. Haynes has been granted the department's Diversity award three times and has been nominated for numerous others.

Haynes began his career as a firefighter in the Navy and became the first African American in Federal Fire Service at the 32nd St. Naval Station. Current Battalion Chief Ronnie Hicks became the second shortly thereafter.

"We broke the color barrier there," Haynes said.

Hicks has been a chief for nine years and has jurisdiction over one of the seven regions in San Diego, which includes Station 17. 

Haynes earned his fire science degree from Miramar College and a supervision degree from San Diego City College. He received his theological degree from Charles Harrison Mason University in 1993 while continuing to work as a firefighter in San Diego.

"B Division has always been the experienced division," Gall said.

"'B' stands for 'Best'," Adams added.

"Actually it stands for 'Blessed,'" Haynes responded. 

Published, May 2007